PITTSBURGH — The greatest tight end in Pittsburgh Steelers history is retired, off being a dad back in his native Virginia. Heath Miller’s replacement, Ladarius Green, is out indefinitely while nursing health issues that won’t seem to go away.
In their stead are a pair of works in progress in Jesse James and Xavier Grimble and an old veteran in David Johnson who basically doubles as a sixth offensive lineman. And the Steelers have not missed a beat. At all.
There Grimble was stretching over the goal line in the second quarter during Sunday’s win over Cincinnati for his first touchdown since his junior year at USC in 2013. There the 6-foot-7 James was reaching into the air in the third quarter for a 9-yard score of his own. There was Johnson chugging ahead of DeAngelo Williams, opening space on the edge.
Who said tight end was going to be the lone weakness on one of the NFL’s best offenses? Certainly not the Steelers, who are 2-0 for the first time in six years, which also happens to be the last time they reached the Super Bowl.
“We were never planning on our role being diluted down,” James said. “But we feel good about how we’ve developed and tried to fit into what the coaches want us to do.”
Namely, a little bit of everything. With periods of heavy rain turning Heinz Field into a bit of a boggy soup at times and the Bengals dead set on shadowing wide receiver Antonio Brown all over the field, James and Grimble found themselves a part of the game plan.
James finished with three receptions for 29 yards and has already matched the entire output of his rookie season (eight catches) in just two weeks.
Yet James has been downright prolific next to Grimble, who went undrafted in 2014 and bounced from the New York Giants to the New England Patriots to the San Francisco 49ers in search of a regular job, to little avail. Pittsburgh signed him to a futures contract last January, though he understood what he was up against after the Steelers signed Green to a four-year deal in the offseason and brought back Johnson to join James.
If Green was healthy, Grimble may be out of work. Yet he’s doing more than simply occupying a roster spot. He’s thriving. The player never known for having the best hands found himself lined up in one-on-one coverage in the second quarter on Sunday, beat his man to the inside, caught the ball at the 5, stepped out of a tackle and had remembered to get the ball over the goal line before his knees touched the ground.
Grimble, however, hardly got caught up in the moment. He gave the ball up and headed to the sideline. Only a heads up by one of his teammates to retrieve it allowed the ball to be in display in Grimble’s locker on Monday. There may be more on the way. Green hardly appears ready to return to work and Grimble’s play — he added a difficult shoestring catch in the third quarter to help set up James’ touchdown — gives Roethlisberger yet another option.
“Ben’s always done a good job of working with us,” Grimble said. “In practice he will look for us on certain plays even if we aren’t the first option because he wants us to be ready. I knew when I saw the safety across from me and the coverage that there was a chance (the touchdown pass) was coming my way.”
Johnson even chipped in rare 5-yard reception on a day Pittsburgh’s tight ends proved to be more valuable to fantasy owners than Brown. Johnson’s real value, however, lies in the running game and in his leadership. He spent five years in Pittsburgh from 2009-13 as a backup to Miller and has given the young guys around him someone to lean on. Individually, none of them has Miller or Green’s unique skill set. Collectively, though, they believe they can be just as effective.
“It means a lot to our group as a tight end group to be able to make plays when we’re counted on,” James said. “It shows that we’re proving ourselves.”